Theatre in Wales

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Matthew Syed on Cognitive Diversity

Summing It Up

Wider Realism Beneficial , the Culture of Wales , March 29, 2020
Summing It Up by Wider Realism Beneficial Two years ago the Culture and Welsh Language Committee was tasked to investigate and report on non-state financing of the arts.

A conclusion for this site 22nd May 2019 read:

“The selection of interviewees was skewed. All were industrious, public-spirited, articulate. But the bias was towards managers from public sector bodies. The speakers ironically then delivered their evidence that Wales was overly dependent on public sector financing.

“Critics and independent spirits were as little present as were the people who make Welsh theatre fizz. Everyone, for what it is worth, who has my respect was absent. As noted, Yvonne Murphy was a fiery exception, her contribution naturally entirely excised from the Report.”

Yvonne Murphy had been cited earlier 21st October 2017:

“As artists and as a sector we spend an inordinate time and energy- which we do not have- articulating the case for the arts to government...I would like, in my lifetime, not to have to keep doing something that we have been doing...since the 1980s.”

The sixth article in this sequence, 16 February below, had as a subject bad thinking.

“Bad thinking more often than not arises from one of two causes. One thing is confused as being joined with another. Conversely there is a failure to distinguish one thing from another.”

“The Arts” as used by insiders is deployed narrowly. Culture is not co-extensive with publicly funded arts. In fact publicly funded culture is a small fraction of the total. Its purpose when established in 1940 was clear, to complement market failure.

In fact the real goal is a symbiosis of public and private. Theatr Clwyd vaulted the Thames last year from the National Theatre to Saint Martin's lane. Shani Rhys-James' pictures have been seen in publicly funded spaces. Radio Wales' the Review Show went to see her last exhibition in a private Mayfair gallery with canvasses at a nice £35,000.

Matthew Syed is the best mainstream author on diversity. His book “Rebel Ideas”, sub-titled “The Truth is that Great Minds Don't Think Alike”, ought to be part of the working vocabulary of all who have responsibility for making decisions about culture. There is small evidence of diversity in public statements on the arts. I doubt if ecologists, system theorists, aestheticians or sociologists are admitted in any serious way into a Cardiff forum.

“One of the obstacles to gaining the benefits of diversity”, writes Syed, “is that we are unconsciously attracted to people who think just like ourselves. It is comforting to be surrounded by people who mirror our perspective. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view. Brain scans reveal it stimulates the pleasure centres.”

The response in Wales to the Warwick Commission findings is an example of the thinness of cognitive variation. A few years ago it issued a report on the arts. There was astonishment about its analysis of attendance. Its statistics reported the Pareto effect. But this demonstrated a rule of the universe; all two phenomena in relationship with each other reveal the Pareto Principle. What would have astonished would have been the Commission discovering the opposite, that Pareto was not at work.

I suspect that the lack of cognitive variation runs deep and that Pareto was not even mentioned. (If this were not the case the information will happily be taken and corrected.) The same misunderstanding will most likely continue to be parroted.

Raymond Williams wrote forcefully about the foggy definitions that permeated the councils he observed in his time. The taxonomy of public funded arts is clear. It is not a part of the education department or a branch of the health service. It is a complementary part of the leisure economy. It competes with the pub, sports, box-sets, video games for the leisure ££.

But there is an onus on it to legitimate itself. That happens when on occasion a publicly funded event makes the jump into a wider cultural currency. This does not happen often enough in Wales. An aspect is that some, essentially rent-seekers, equate low popular appeal with validation of aesthetic quality.

In addition there is the diminished public sphere. The young people of my acquaintance have busy cultural lives. They have not had participation in publicly funded art for years. The last occasion, to my memory, was NoFit State ten years back. Many are now tax-payers. There is not anything for most of them.

Matthew Syed tells a joke in his book. Two young fish swimming along meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?"

The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

Postscript: Nick Davies, a former Arts Council Officer, wrote about Wales' lack of diversity.

“In my experience, the Welsh theatre community consists almost exclusively of liberal and progressive creative people.”

These are codewords. He also observed their liberal and progressive qualities at work: His description is as unvarnished as it is unpleasant.

“I remember seeing Rachel O’Riordan in her first month at the Sherman field an open meeting with angry artists in a way that was admirable if only for the way she refused to crumble amid a toxic atmosphere.

“Anger and criticism was [sic] aimed at her before she had even signalled her artistic intentions for the company. I worried she would up-sticks before she had unpacked her bags and I wouldn’t have blamed her.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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